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Lois & Clark 4.11 – Twas the Night Before Mxymas

We’ve come full circle. Last year, I felt like sharing the silly story about how some fans suggested the actor Wallace Shawn for the role of Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark, and for our final selection from the series, that’s the episode we’re watching: the one that didn’t feature Shawn.

I did caution our son ahead of time that this program’s Mr. Mxyzptlk was not, perhaps sadly, a little guy with a purple fedora wandering around Metropolis bellowing “McGurk!” He’s a malevolent fellow with the dress sense of a dandy and the ethics of Q, the nigh-omnipotent recurring baddie in Star Trek. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend with an even weirder name! (Ms. Gzptlsnz.)

So this really shouldn’t have worked. Lois & Clark had a reputation of stunt-casting comedy stars as comic book villains and, I guess responding to a folk memory of the ’60s Batman, the directors had them yuk it up. This didn’t work because the first season of Lois & Clark established a world where the drama often had a light touch, but the stakes were high and the actors playing villains took things seriously. And so here we have a character called Mr. Mxyzptlk who doesn’t look or act like his comic book antecedent, and he was played by comedian Howie Mandel. And yet it’s great!

In Tim Minear’s “Twas the Night Before Mxymas,” Mxyzptlk’s big stunt is to trap the planet in a time loop that only Clark can detect, and when the loop resets after four hours, everything gets a hair worse as everyone’s despair grows. Some of the logic jumps necessary to make this work can be best chalked up to the baddie’s fifth-dimensional magic, but it’s a neat idea and our heroes’ clever solutions to the problem are really innovative.

There’s a justly celebrated scene in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s amazing comic All-Star Superman where the Man of Steel saves a young girl named Regan from killing herself, because he knows what has happened and is able to offer her a few words of compassion. That scene’s antecedent is here in this episode. Since the time loop has showed Superman how one fellow becomes desperate enough to rob a bank, he’s able to get ahead of him and find him another path and some badly needed hope. I love this scene.

And our kid was very pleased with the story, pronouncing it by far his favorite of the five we watched. There are some cute comedy moments and good one-liners and people talking at once and Perry White dressing as Santa Claus, and the poor schlub that the time loop has turned into the office drunk gets a face full of eggnog. But he loved Mr. Mxyzptlk’s tricks and stunts, and the inevitable scene where our heroes trick the imp into saying his name backward had him roaring. This version of the fifth-dimensional pest may not wear purple, but he’s all right with our kid.

Speaking of folk memory, as I did above, I think that Lois & Clark is remembered as a show that went downhill and crashed because they got married. I think that’s wrong. I think it went downhill and crashed and then they got married and the show improved. Most of season four was very watchable. There were some duds, and some episodes were better than others, and occasionally two writer cats who were nominally in charge of the production, executively, would script Lois as weak, sobbing, and unable to cope with anything. (I remember the beginning moments of episode 15 as probably the character’s lowest point.)

(Bizarrely, there were six or seven women in fandom who actually seemed to approve of Weak Lois. They were watching for the goo-goo eyes, believed Lois was incomplete without Clark, and they got so insufferable that I used a blank card in our game of Illuminati to mock them. That showed ’em.)

But overall, the show got a lot better, with more original villains, much better casting, and far more interesting stories. Even the episode which reeked the most of network promotional nonsense, featuring guest stars Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney taking a break from their popular sitcom, was full of surprises, and Kinney was excellent as the ghost of a murdered woman.

The improvements didn’t matter. The damage by the end of season three and all that amnesia nonsense done, the show’s ratings dropped like a rock. Murder, She Wrote had finally concluded after twelve years, but CBS had a new ratings powerhouse for the slot: Touched by an Angel. Lois & Clark was preempted for weeks at a time, kept off the air during sweeps months, moved an hour earlier, and finally dumped on Saturdays for the end of its run, where the last episodes were seen by fewer than five million viewers.

ABC had actually ordered a fifth season many months earlier, but reconsidered and paid Warners a hefty kill fee. For those of us who were ratings nerds in 1996-97, this was a wild surprise. All those Wednesdays looking over the Nielsens chart in USA Today and shrugging that the sinking viewers didn’t matter because the show had already been renewed… ah, well.

Lois & Clark was certainly a very, very flawed show, and more of it was bad than was good. But its first season was wonderful and its fourth was frequently very entertaining. I liked these samples better than our favorite eight year-old critic did, but I’m glad that the show’s on the DC Universe service for new fans to discover. Maybe you out there in TV Land will like it even more than I did.

Love,
Superman’s Pal,
Colonel X.

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Lois & Clark 3.12 – Never on Sunday

So season two of both Lois & Clark and its rival, seaQuest DSV saw both shows tumble in the ratings. That’s in part because Fox smelled blood and sicced The Simpsons on them, and in part because the first half of L&C‘s second year emphasized wacky villains of the week played by goofball celebrities instead of the heroes, the world of the Daily Planet, and the slow, satisfying burn of Lois Lane and Clark Kent falling in love.

By the end of the year, things had course-corrected somewhat, the show got renewed, and in the short term, things worked in the ratings. Season three was when Lois accepted Clark’s way, way, way too premature proposal, but only after telling him that she had deduced that he was Superman. The frisson of having the two on an equal footing and planning for a wedding did grow audiences, and the show was regularly in the top thirty. NBC had blinked and moved seaBore to another night, Murder She Wrote was finally showing signs of age, and things should have been good, except the show was just plain lousy.

If you want to do a show where Lois and Clark are the focus and Superman’s an incidental character, then the threat-of-the-week doesn’t have to be major or massive, which explains why the first season, as designed by Deborah Joy LeVine, was so satisfying. But with Superman given greater prominence in seasons two and three, then they needed to come up with interesting, unique challenges and take them seriously and they didn’t. In season three, they were still doing comical baddies of the week, played by the likes of Mac Davis, Dave Coulier, and the Joe Isuzu guy.

Worse, Lois Lane devolved. The tough, resourceful Lois from season one with a million connections, drive, and determination was certainly seen as vunerable when her defenses cracked, and her impulses sometimes got the better of her. But season three’s Lois was weak and stupid and bumbling. She whined, she broke down. She wasn’t in control of anything anymore.

The first fourteen episodes of season three were mostly terrible, but there were two that didn’t have me rage-posting to the newsgroup. “Ultra Woman” was another red kryptonite episode. It had another dopey sitcom villain, played by Shelley Long, but it did open Lois’s eyes to Clark’s responsibilities as Superman. Plus I like red kryptonite, and it had Teri Hatcher in a tight spandex costume and I’m only human.

But Grant Rosenberg’s “Never on Sunday” was the best story of the year by about ten thousand miles. It guest-starred Cress Williams, who is currently playing the other side of the superpowered law and order equation as Black Lightning on the CW, as a minor villain from the comics called Baron Sunday. For one shining moment, Superman had a serious, believable, and interesting threat, played by an actor who wasn’t doing this for laughs.

And all these years later, “Never on Sunday” is still an extremely good hour of adventure television, with a couple of familiar faces in the cast. Beverly Garland had a recurring role at this time as Lois’s mother, and there’s a cute subplot about her slowly steamrolling Lois and Clark’s wedding plans with her own, and Les Lannom has a small part as one of Baron Sunday’s victims. It must have been around the time this first aired (January 1996) that I finally landed eight or ten episodes of Harry O in a tape trade, but none of them had Lannom’s recurring role as Lester Hodges in them, so I probably didn’t connect the two back then!

And our son was pleasantly creeped out by bits of it. Baron Sunday is a sorcerer who uses voodoo to frighten people to death, and he’s having trouble killing Clark Kent for an old incident that our hero doesn’t really know all about. He’s able to give Clark a nightmare of being sealed in a steel coffin, and the combination of Dean Cain’s scared-to-death acting and the freaky images of the coffin with a horrible grinding noise gave our son the heebie-jeebies.

One final note: I’m not sure what he’s like in the funnybooks, but the TV Baron Sunday is a massively successful stage magician who quietly uses voodoo on the side, and his latest tour has brought him to Metropolis. His PR team announces him to the Daily Planet by way of an old-fashioned folder press kit, with some 8×10 color glossies in one pocket and typed copy in the other, along with a pair of comped tickets. When this aired, I collected press kits and I wanted that prop press kit so badly it hurt. (I still have two: for Jurassic Park and the godawful 1990s Land of the Lost remake.) Maybe I shouldn’t have been such a know-it-all jerk on the newsgroup and let all the producers know how many pillows I was throwing at the screen every Sunday. If I’d have been sweet and polite, maybe one of them would have let me have it!

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The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 1.10 – Mystery of the Fallen Angels

The previous episode of Nancy Drew was full of established Hollywood stars making guest appearances, but this morning’s story was full of up-and-comers. Cast as four motorcycle-riding carnival workers who have a job on the side heisting appliances from fancy houses, there are two of the stars of Jason of Star Command, which would begin production a little more than a year later: Craig Littler and Susan O’Hanlon. Perhaps better known are the other two members of the gang: Jamie Lee Curtis and Robert Englund. Beverly Garland also has a major role in this story, but she was no up-and-comer; she probably had more than two hundred credits by the time she’d made this.

Also appearing, the Universal backlot. Well, it gets used in most of these episodes, but I don’t remember ever seeing it from this angle before. The carnival sets up on the other side of the studio pond, so the cameras are facing the “quaint coastal western” buildings and the riverboat, leading any viewer paying attention to ask the not unreasonable question where on Earth, other than a studio backlot, this carnival could possibly be. The actual story was just a bit of harmless fluff, but our son really enjoyed all the motorcycle stuff, including a big chase at the end that saw one or two of the “try your luck” stands destroyed by runaway bikes.

Speaking of Nancy Drew, we genuinely had no idea until yesterday that a new Nancy Drew film was released literally a month ago. I found the DVD at Target yesterday. Has anybody heard of this film? The 2007 movie with Emma Roberts has been on the “maybe” list to watch with our son for a while. Should we look at this one as well?

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